Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Melanie

Age at interview: 42

Brief outline: Melanie described ‘living in abuse’ for many years. She was abused by a family member as a toddler, a teacher when she was age 11 and then from a number of intimate partners. She has recently escaped a coercive controlling relationship and is beginning to speak out about her experiences, to help others.

Background: Melanie is 42 year old, black British (Caribbean) woman, single and living with her daughters aged 22, 20 and seven. She is a support worker for people with learning disabilities, but has taken time out from work, to care for family and to recover from a depressive illness.

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After a lifetime of abusive relationships Melanie came to regard abuse as ‘normal’. Her attempts to speak out as a child led to her being ‘silenced’ and she felt she was not believed. Her only confidante was her sister, who also experienced abuse but preferred to stay quiet and not disclose. Melanie’s family moved to the USA when she was 15 and she stayed for seven years. During this time she had two children in abusive or fleeting relationships and narrowly avoided being lured into prostitution.

After returning to England, she was physically abused by another man. Although the case went to court, there was no conviction since the perpetrator knew how to ‘play the system’. Her most recent relationship lasted seven years and was characterised by psychological abuse and coercive control. This was different from her previous experiences of physical and sexual abuse and she did not recognise his behaviour as abuse. Thinking it was ‘normal’ for her partner to control her life, she ‘walked on eggshells’ for years, in fear of upsetting him. She had no control over her finances, was harassed by telephone calls at work and had to follow her partner’s invisible ‘rules’. She talks about ‘mind games’ whereby the rules changed on a daily basis according to his whim so that she was constantly confused. Her partner plied her with alcohol and cannabis so that her head was ‘all mush’, she abused medication, suffered from agoraphobia and ‘didn’t know what pain was’. She describes not being allowed to have any opinions or feelings. Challenging her partner led to enforced sex and she became fearful for her life and the safety of her children.

The end of Melanie’s ‘living nightmare’ began when she realised that she was seriously unwell, underweight, feeling like she was having a breakdown. Something clicked and she realised she could not continue to live that way. She contacted Shelter, the housing and homelessness organisation, and a worker phoned up the Freedom project for her (a rolling programme of group support and learning for women experiencing domestic violence and abuse). Melanie says that she would never have acted if the phone call had not been made for her. The Freedom project was her ‘saviour’, she met others in similar situations, the ‘fog began to clear’ and she is now working as a co-facilitator. 

She is close to her daughters but aware of the impact on them of witnessing abuse. One has night terrors and one developed a stammer. Melanie has received Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is now receiving individual therapy via the Freedom Project and is taking anti-depressant medication.

Throughout her life, Melanie describes how she has always presented well to the outside world, she dresses well and walks with her ‘head held high’. However she feels this sent the wrong signals to health professionals who remained unaware of her suffering.

Melanie would like to see changes to the way boys are brought up, discouraging dominance and aggression. She feels that women are devalued, particularly within the African Caribbean community where she feels it is a cultural norm for men to have multiple female partners. Melanie’s advice to women is to seek help as soon as possible and she celebrates that there really is ‘life after abuse’.

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